Is Five the new Seven?

Good morning, good afternoon or good evening– whichever is applicable to you. It goes without saying that people gravitate toward and admire success. People study said success and often times attempt to mimic it in hopes of breeding their own success story. The game of baseball is no different. In winning the World Series in 2015, the Kansas City Royals may very well have changed the way baseball will be played moving forward for seasons to come.

When you combine last season’s World Series win with the World Series loss of 2014, it’s impossible to argue that the Royals have been the class of baseball of late. While putting the ball in play, speed, and great defense stick out as attributes for this run, the calling card was the bullpen. The bullpen featured a mix of dominance and depth that was unrivaled. A strong bullpen and a below-league-average rotation had never been a recipe for postseason success– that is, until the Royals.

While the Royals created their own trademark, the Cubs and Rays began to employ another unconventional bullpen tactic, the piggyback rotation (Honestly I don’t believe the “coin” has been placed on a name, so we‘ll go piggyback). The gist of it was using the bullpen earlier than one would expect, and in a manner which seemed rehearsed. The Rays’ approach seemed to be built more on bullpen depth, while the Cubs employed more multiple-inning options to bridge to the endgame.

The Royals simply played to their strength. The Cubs and Rays seemed to use more of a sabermetric approach. The MLB average for hitter OPS the first time through a lineup is .709. That average increased the 2nd time through the lineup to .731, and yet again the 3rd time through to .764. Have you noticed a pattern yet? On the other hand the league average for hitter OPS vs. relief pitchers the 1st time through the lineup is .699. On average, a hitter’s OPS is .065 points lower if the manager goes to the field and signals to the bullpen, rather than sitting back and letting the starting pitcher continue.

As of this point I’ve referenced 3 of the 30 teams. For those of you counting at home that leaves 27 teams that have yet to embrace what I’m claiming could change the game. As is the case with most statistics, the problematic areas aren’t exactly league wide. While the majority of pitchers do tend to have an uptick each time the lineup roles over, many of these increases are negligible. I’m not proclaiming that starting pitchers in all rotations throughout MLB will become 5-inning pitchers (Clayton Kershaw is still alive, after all); I’m simply suggesting that teams will be more willing to build a staff from the bottom up, and be quicker to reach for the hook when the statistics suggest they should do so.

After looking over rosters and some individual SP numbers I devised two lists. The first list is made up of teams I feel have the makeup to employ some type of unconventional pitching approach. I focused on bullpens with depth and or a strong back-end combined with viable swingmen. The second list consists of 5 SP who are being drafted in the majority of formats and could be candidates for shortened outings if improvements are not made from 2015.

Teams

Diamondbacks: The bullpen features a nice mix of depth and talent. Brad Ziegler, Tyler Clippard, Daniel Hudson, Randall Delgado and Silvino Bracho are all standouts to me. In addition, Josh Collmenter and perhaps Robbie Ray could both serve as long men. From an organizational standpoint the Diamondbacks don’t seem to be the most analytically leaning organization, but perhaps this approach would serve as innings protection for Patrick Corbin, or perhaps Archie Bradley if he wins a rotation spot.

Cubs: The Cubs relied heavily on this approach after the All-Star break, and if you begin to piece the roster together, there’s no reason to suggest things will change. Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Justin Grimm make for a nice back-end of a bullpen, and arms such as Travis Wood, Adam Warren, and perhaps even Trevor Cahill all provide multiple-inning versatility if needed.

Astros: An organization that takes a very analytical approach will surely notice the developing trend. Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson, Tony Sipp, and Pat Neshek all provide quality work. The rotation itself is currently six deep with Keuchel, McCullers, McHugh, Fister, Feldman, and Fiers. It goes without saying the odd man out would serve as a nice long man. There have already been talks of an innings limit for McCullers; a perfect set-up would be shortened outings throughout the season. This seems like a system that would keep him fresh while at the same time saving those innings for the stretch run.

Royals: I think it will be interesting to see how the Royals handle things this season. Once again the staff is devoid of a true ace, at least on paper. At the moment I’d question whether the Royals have the bullpen depth of years past. With that said, the closer is still very good in the hard-throwing Wade Davis. Joakim Soria, Kelvin Herrera, and Luke Hochevar are very nice fallback options. Unless the Royals fail to develop another serviceable bullpen option, I see no reason that Kansas City will not go back to what has worked for another go-’round.

Brewers: The Brewers figure to be among the worst teams in baseball this season. The rotation has some nice potentially long-term arms in Taylor Jungmann, Jimmy Nelson, and Zach Davies. The bullpen has some quality arms as well, with Will Smith, Jeremy Jeffress, and Corey Knebel manning the back-end. One of the surplus starters could join Tyler Cravy and serve as a second long man. Why waste excess IP on young arms for an 85-90 loss team?

Padres: Much like the Brewers, the Padres don’t figure to factor in contention for a Western Division title. It would be easy to suggest the biggest goal heading into 2016 would be to part ways with James Shields, Matt Kemp, and Andrew Cashner. As spring begins, as many as 6 pitchers have a legitimate shot at the three remaining rotation spots. That competition itself adds 3 arms to a bullpen that is more depth than talent.

Mariners: While the Mariners would seem to be a competitor in the AL West, they are similar to the Padres in that they should have a surplus of long arm options. James Paxton, Vidal Nuno, and Joe Wieland all would be nice options, and not one would be considered the favorite for a rotation spot at this point. Perhaps Taijuan Walker would serve to benefit from their collective presence in order to protect his IP? Wade Miley and Nate Karns both had issue the third time through the lineup last season. Miley’s OPS was .661 the 1st time through, .670 the second time, and .916(!) the third go around. Karns meanwhile posted a .721 the first time, .597 the second, and .809 the third.

Giants: Several of the rotation pieces have some age on those arms. Peavy in particular really struggled last season the third time through. The first time through the order he held opponents to a .632 OPS, even better at .491 the second time, but things hit the fan the third time through as opponents had a 1.064 OPS. The back-end of the bullpen is really strong with Santiago Casilla, Hunter Strickland, Javier Lopez, and Sergio Romo. Chris Heston could also serve as a more than viable long arm, much like Yusmeiro Petit was during the 2014 title run.

Rays: It will be interesting to see how the Rays approach the 2016 season. The bullpen, on paper, doesn’t have the depth you’ve become accustomed to seeing from the Rays. In addition, given injury, the rotation is pretty much set at this point. My guess is the Rays begin the season with traditional bullpen usage. They’ll bide their time until Blake Snell and/or Alex Cobb returns. At that point I’d expect the Rays to employee the surplus starter into a long arm out of the pen, likely “piggybacking” where the numbers suggest.

Pitchers

James Shields (NFBC ADP 36th among SP, 134 Overall) Even I have a hard time believing staff aces would be handled in this manner. With that being said, the numbers are the numbers. Last season Shields’ OPS the first time through the order was .731, second time .675, but the third time was a feast for hitters as his OPS ballooned to .930. The Padres want nothing more than to trade James Shields this season, and he could be the last trade chip that could net a real solid prospect. The easiest way for Shields to build value is by pitching well. We may have very well reached a point where sparkling ratios play better than the “workhorse” label.

Yordano Ventura (NFBC ADP 49th among SP, 176 Overall) Obviously the Royals are prime candidates to pull the plug early on starters, and Ventura’s 2015 gave the Royals a good reason for doing so. First time through the order produced a .640 OPS, a slight up tick the second time around at .661, and once again the third time produced poor results as hitter had an .854 OPS. Regardless of the team’s makeup, it would be taxing for any bullpen to be relied on for 5+ IP 5-6 times per week. With that in mind a staff ace will have to emerge in KC. While Ventura seems to be the best bet, adjustments will need to be made to improve the unsightly OPS the third time through the lineup. Otherwise expect Ned Yost to keep walking to the mound at the first sight of trouble.

Mike Fiers (NFBC ADP of 57 among SP, 212 Overall) Honestly, I question his lofty ADP to begin with. Keuchel, McHugh, and McCullers are all rotation locks, and given the one-year deal given to Fister, he’s a virtual lock for the 4th spot. That leaves Fiers and Scott Feldman to battle it out for the 5th spot. While Fiers may have the higher upside, Feldman seems like the better fit for me. Fiers’ stuff plays better out of the pen than Feldman’s. In addition, Fiers had increased OPS issues last season. The first two times through the order hitters had a .606 and .666 OPS respectively, that number went to .916 the third time through. Even if Fiers earns the rotation spot once camp breaks, if he fails to improve in this area, it could be a challenge for him to keep the spot.

Kyle Hendricks (NFBC ADP of 60 among SP, 218 Overall) Hendricks was the SP that perked my interest in wanting to look at the 3rd time through data. There’s a lot to like about Hendricks. Last week I spoke of my GAWK system for SP evaluation. Hendricks was among the 21 that posted better than league average in all 3 areas. Last season he earned very few chances to work himself out of any trouble after the 5th inning. Hendricks’ OPS-against was .651 the 1st time, .585 the 2nd, and .894 the dreaded 3rd time through. Given what we already know, it would be hard to imagine the Cubs changing their methods unless vast improvements are made.

Andrew Cashner (NFBC ADP of 70 among SP and 269 Overall) Much like Shields, I could see the Padres resorting to trading him for the sole purpose of improving trade stock. Whereas Shields may seem like a long shot to fail given his ace status, I wouldn’t be shocked in the least to see AC struggle – given Cashner’s trouble last season combined with how the Padres bullpen could be configured. Last season Cashner had a .686 OPS-against the first time through, .715 the second go around, and an atrocious .937 the third time through.

*****

While a situational pitching approach may improve the ratio statistics, you’d be hard pressed to argue a SP fantasy value would improve as well. Obviously K totals would greatly decrease, the difficult task of W’s would become even more difficult, and even quality starts could take a hit if they don’t make it through six. Plus, even the ratios themselves, while improved, would have less impact from your team total in a roto format. As fantasy owners, the task at hand is building a team for 2016, and while many of those expectations are derived from 2015 the statistics themselves have no value. While one eye should be placed on those statistics, looking at developing trends could be just as important. When the Kansas City Royals won the World Series it validated their pitching approach as something that could work. If sports history is any precursor, it’s only a matter of time before others will follow.

 

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Josh Coleman
Father of four SP1 children. Replacement level husband to a top tier wife. I love my family, value my friendships, and spend as much time as possible (too much according to the aforementioned Mrs. Coleman) dedicated to the pursuit, of another Fantasy Championship. I'm the oddball at the bar who prefers Fantasy Baseball to Fantasy Football.